What are the Kanbans of your employees?


Photo by Chris J

Yesterday, the concept of Kanban was discussed in operations class. This is Kanban according to Wikipedia:

Kanban (where kan, means “visual,” and ban, means “card” or “board”) is a concept related to lean and just-in-time (JIT) production. The Japanese word kanban (pronounced [kambaɴ]) is a common term meaning “signboard” or “billboard”… Kanban is a signaling system to trigger action. As its name suggests, kanban historically uses cards to signal the need for an item. However, other devices such as plastic markers (kanban squares) or balls (often golf balls) or an empty part-transport trolley or floor location can also be used to trigger the movement, production, or supply of a unit in a factory. It was out of a need to maintain the level of improvements that the kanban system was devised by Toyota.

The main idea is one of signaling. In a manufacturing or production line, signals are used to communicate information between different employees and workstations, thus creating a better flow.

The idea got me thinking about the signs we see in non-manufacturing settings. What is the signs our employees give us to let us know they are in trouble or need our help? I don’t think the answer to this question is as straight forward as the one in manufacturing, but I think it warrants the thinking of managers.

In the past I discussed in this blog the concept of Vital signs (Also see this). A clear set of measurements that  allows you to know the state of your business. I also discussed the idea of the new challenges of measuring employee’s performance – the problems of finding the right measurements in the sea of data we have about our business.  I think the Kanban thinking adds another dimension these dilemmas.

On one hand, it makes us think not only what the vital signs are and how can measure them, but also about how we make sure they are communicated clearly. The all idea of a Kanban in a manufacturing environment is that the signal determines the behavior of the workstation. If you agree with me that a manager’s job is to make sure that his employees excel, the question is how we, as managers, can make sure that we see this signal and act according to it?

On the other hand, employees are not machines. The problems they are facing are more complex and they have psychological barriers to report the signs to us. So the question arises how can we make sure the signs will be there constantly? How can we articulate the importance of the Kanbans to our employees?

I have no answers to these questions. I am not sure there are general answers to cover every case. But I think every manager should consider them and ask himself – what are my employees Kanbans?